As a comedian, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano became Japan's foremost media celebrity and a popular movie tough guy. But Kitano has also become one of Japan's most celebrated auteurs of the '90s. Now two of the seven films he directed are about to get released in the United States.

An acclaimed stand-up comic voted Japan's favorite TV celebrity from 1990 to 1995, Kitano has been widely praised as a filmmaker for "Sonatine," shown at the 1994 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival, and "Fireworks" ("Hana-Bi"), which won the Golden Lion at Venice last year.At 51, Kitano is a compact man with a strong, blunt face and a quietly forceful presence. Like many comedians, when not performing, Kitano has a sober demeanor, but he can suddenly break into unexpected laughter, especially when giving a humorous reply to a serious question.

"Sonatine," due April 10, is a droll, deadpan - and ultimately romantic - gangster movie. Kitano stars, under his stage name Beat Takeshi, as a tough Tokyo mobster dispatched by his boss to Okinawa along with several henchmen to help out an affiliated gang deal with rivals, only to discover that it's a setup. In the film, Kitano revealed a driving visual style that never lags.

As a director, Kitano had developed considerable visual and psychological complexity by the time of "Fireworks." It is at once the story of two ill-fated veteran Tokyo cops, one (Kitano) with a wife dying of leukemia and deeply in debt to "yakuza" and another (Ren Osugi) confined to a wheelchair after being shot.

"Sonatine" is splendid, but "Fireworks" is the work of a master, leaving you to wonder how Kitano, who has appeared in 17 films, made such a spectacular transition from comic to auteur.

Kitano became a director unexpectedly in 1990 when he took over the helm of "Violent Cop," in which he starred after Kinji Fukasaku - noted for the '60s cult thrillers "Black Lizard" and its sequel "Black Rose" - withdrew.

In August 1994, Kitano nearly lost his life when he crashed his motor scooter into a guardrail on a highway in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku night life district. During his long recuperation, he took up painting, and this inspired him to have the paralyzed cop in "Fireworks" do the same.

"Then I came up with the notion that it might not be inappropriate to put my paintings in the picture," he said. "At the same time, I thought it was a risky thing to do - to put an amateur's paintings up there on a big screen in a theater."

Kitano pointed out that with his next film, involving a boy and his mother, half of his films have been about children, but he admits his hard-core fans especially admire "Violent Cop" and his second picture, "Boiling Point."

"When I look back at those two films, I feel both are very rough," he said. Yet he continued to make pictures about cops and gangsters but not just because that was expected of him.

"When I want to deal with matters of life and death, especially in Japanese society, it is easier to do it with cops and gangsters." Japanese society in general tends to evade the concept of death. We become so concerned with building our careers and our families we no longer think about death anymore. I think if you want to enjoy your life thoroughly, to live it fully, you have to resist not pondering death. After all, it comes to everyone and often unexpectedly."